Source: New York Times / February 2, 2016
With millions of cars containing potentially defective airbags made by Takata still on the road, two senators on Tuesday urged the Obama administration to significantly expand the airbag recalls.
Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Edward Markey of Massachusetts, both Democrats, called on the Obama administration in a letter to force the recall of every Takata airbag that uses a propellant that contains a compound called ammonium nitrate, which can degrade over time and become unstable.
The letter follows the death of Joel Knight, who was killed in December when the airbag in his 2006 Ford Ranger ruptured after hitting a stray cow in South Carolina, sending metal debris into his throat. The airbag, on the driver’s side, had not been recalled until last month. Ten deaths and more than 100 injuries have been linked to the defect.
Over the weekend, The New York Times reported the circumstances surrounding Mr. Knight’s death and risks posed by not yet recalled and unrepaired vehicles with Takata airbags.
To date, 14 automakers have recalled 28 million airbag inflaters — the metal casing that contains the propellant — in about 24 million vehicles. But millions of cars with potentially defective inflaters remain on the road. In total, Takata has shipped about 54 million inflaters to automakers in the United States.
“We do not need to wait for yet another preventable death to happen in order to recall the remaining population of vehicles containing ammonium nitrate-propelled airbags,” the senators wrote.
Mr. Blumenthal and Mr. Markey also criticized the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for not demonstrating more urgency in forcing Takata to prove that ammonium nitrate is safe to use.
Although the agency has already barred Takata from using ammonium nitrate in new airbags, it has given the supplier until the end of 2018 to prove that it is safe in existing airbags. And the agency gave Takata even longer, until the end of 2019, to show that an altered version is safe. Takata has said that ammonium nitrate, when properly treated, is safe.
If Takata cannot prove the compound’s safety, all airbags containing ammonium nitrate could be recalled. But the time granted to Takata, the senators said, is part of “an outrageous dereliction of duty” that the agency has had over the years with Takata.
A spokesman for the agency could not immediately be reached for comment. But the agency has said that while unknowns remained surrounding the cause of the defect, complicating the recalls, if it “believes a vehicle presents an unreasonable risk to safety, the agency would seek a recall.”
Mr. Blumenthal and Mr. Markey did acknowledge that the agency has recently stepped up its enforcement against Takata. In November, it imposed a $70 million penalty on Takata, a fine that could grow by $130 million if the supplier does not meet the terms of its agreement with the agency. Takata separately faces a criminal investigation by the Justice Department into its handling of the defect.
Takata declined to comment on the senators’ letter but has said that it is “cooperating fully with regulators and our automotive customers and continues to support all actions that advance vehicle safety.”
Also on Tuesday, an outside panel hired by Takata urged the company to improve its testing to make sure its airbags stay safe for more years and in different climates.
The panel, led by Samuel Skinner, a former secretary of the Transportation Department, also faulted the Japanese supplier for its lack of a formal program intended to identify quality-related problems in airbags currently in cars.
But the report did not address issues that have embroiled the supplier as the safety crisis over its airbags has grown: Takata’s manipulation of testing data, its failure to alert regulators to problems and its disregard of outside studies warning of possible safety issues.
These issues were outside the purview of the panel, the study’s authors said.
The report, commissioned by the supplier last year, also did not address whether ammonium nitrate is safe to use in airbags.
“The panel did not attempt to assess past practices or evaluate Takata products in the automobile fleet. It did not attempt to evaluate the design of any Takata product,” the report said. “The panel did not analyze any specific product failure or reported quality incident. The panel did not form any conclusions regarding the root cause of Takata’s current inflater ruptures.”
The report added: “No link between the gaps in quality processes identified by the panel and the failure of products covered by Takata’s current recall campaign should be inferred.”
And it said: “Over all, the panel was generally satisfied with Takata’s North American manufacturing operation, much of which is state of the art.”
Despite its limited scope, the report did appear to discuss design and quality control shortfalls at Takata, even as it refused to link them to the past ruptures.
The report said that Takata needed to develop more rigid airbag tests that took into account the fact that cars “now often remain on our nation’s roads for more than a decade and find themselves in multiple states with widely different climate conditions and operating environments during their lifetimes.”
The report also urged Takata to put in place rules for deciding when to seek expert advice, and how to evaluate and act on the feedback it received. Takata previously dismissed conclusions reached by researchers at Pennsylvania State University that cast doubt on ammonium nitrate’s performance.
The report expressed concerns over some critical manufacturing processes, which are carried out manually, allowing for human error and inconsistent practices within and across its factories. It also said that Takata too often allowed product designs to move forward even when issues remained with those designs. And it said there was no program at Takata meant to identify quality issues in airbags once they were on the road.